Yahoo usability tests bode ill for OpenID takeup

The OpenID digital identity management standard's long and winding road to general usage hit a pothole in recent tests by Yahoo, one of the program's most prominent identity service providers.

Started in 2005, the service has reported several gains in adoption over the past few months. Most notably, MySpace announced in July that it would be providing OpenID services -- a tremendous increase in potential users of the single-sign-in system.

OpenID allows users to winnow down the number of usernames and passwords they must remember to just one. The user chooses an identity provider he or she trusts -- leading providers currently include Yahoo, Google, AOL, and LiveJournal -- and registers, getting a URL-style identifier (e.g., angela.openid.justmakingthisup.com) in return. When the user later comes across a site that requires sign-in info, she or he instead gives their identifier. The site communicates with the identity provider to ascertain who the user is.

That's great in theory, but according to the results of usability testing Yahoo did with a group of mainstream users over the summer, there's a lot of work to do before users recognize that the OpenID system even exists, much less how it works or why it might be helpful.

A post by Yahoo membership architect Allen Tom captures a bit of the fun. Users who completed the tests and were told about OpenID thought it sounded like a swell idea. Unfortunately, every single user had to be told what it was -- none knew of the service, none had noticed the new sign-in box next to the usual login form, and even when they were made aware of the service, most of them got confused either trying to use it or trying to sign up.

User comments during testing, which are sprinkled through the 25-page report (PDF available here), indicate there were some fairly cranky people in the evaluation room. The feeling was mutual according to Tom's blog: "Observing these tests was more than a bit frustrating for the Yahoo OpenID team, and the test subjects may have been distracted by the sounds of the groans and head-pounding coming from the other side of the one-way mirror. Certainly there is a lot of work to be done on the OpenID UX (user experience) front."

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